Archive for the 'urbanscape and environment' Category

Of China and India: wandering thoughts from streets, boats and trains

Boats in Chongqing (L) and Kochi (R)

[2,900 words]. Ever since China began to be a major part of the global economy in the early 1990s, one of the most enduring themes in American media is the country’s rise and its future challenge to US dominance. A subsidiary theme is whether India may be on the same path to parity, with this subtheme often coming across as prayer and hope: that India, as a fellow democracy, could help the US contain superpower China.

Much Indian discourse about China in recent years has adopted this lens too. Discussion about China in Indian media (at least the English-language media that is accessible to me) tends to take on a comparative and competitive tone. A good example is this online discussion at Which country will be next superpower: India or China?  It is rare to see discussion about China as itself. Continue reading ‘Of China and India: wandering thoughts from streets, boats and trains’

Patches, grit, and the sorry state of things

There used to be benches on both sides. They were recently removed — most likely as part of SMRT’s “service improvement”, which is Orwellian-speak for “squeeze more people in”. The parts under the erstwhile benches are darker grey, but the outline of the benches isn’t of straight lines. Instead the wavy boundary between the darker and lighter grey is almost surely caused by abrasion from feet over the years.

Yet, there are some dark spots too near the doors where abrasion must be greatest, suggesting that the floor covering has worn through one more layer, revealing a third, dark layer beneath, or that abrasion is so deep that dirt is trapped there.

An alternative explanation could be that the spotty abrasion near the doors came not from feet, but from scrubbing with an incompatible chemical in an attempt to clean the dirtiest parts.

The questions that come to mind are:

1. Was this degree of wear and tear expected?

2. If it was, what is SMRT’s replacement policy for flooring?

3. If it wasn’t, was it because of substandard materials used? If so, did the manufacturer cut corners, or was the vendor specification too lax?

Regardless of the answers to the questions above, the fact is that when the seats were removed, the stark discolouration of the floor must have become noticeable. Why didn’t SMRT promptly lay a new flooring? Did the maintenance and branding people think it acceptable to leave this awful sight in place?

Or was replacement proposed but rejected by management?

Some readers may also have experienced SMRT carriages with an unpleasant odour. I’ve never been able to identify it, but it is a chemical kind of smell, not from other humans. My guess is that it was either from the cleaning chemicals, or from a nasty reaction between the chemicals used and the interior of the carriages — perhaps the flooring.

That something nasty is going on became quite apparent two weeks later, when I was in a different train and took this photograph:


I took it because, as I stepped into the train, I felt the floor to be gritty underfoot.

Why is it so? I asked myself, and stooped down for a closer look. And took this next picture.

What is evident is that what used to be a smooth floor covering — the speckled floor is really composed of grit embedded in polymer — has now been so badly abraded that the softer polymer has worn off by a millimetre or two and grit stands exposed. It won’t be long before the grit loosens out altogether, perhaps to be shuffled by walking feet, with some pieces eventually ending up in the door channels. We’ll know it has happened when the doors jam and refuse to open or close.

I can’t say for sure why the polymer flooring in this train has worn down so badly. No other train that I have been in had this problem. Either the flooring was particularly substandard in this train, or a new cleaning chemical was tried on this one, with disastrous results.

Regardless of the reason, why wasn’t the floor covering replaced immediately?

It says much of an organisation whether problems are promptly attended to. We can read a lot about management attitudes from the little things. Not just the attitudes of top management, but all the way down line management.

Look at this next photo, taken at an MRT station toilet. Three faucets have broken down. What are the odds that they broke down the same day? Very unlikely, I would think. In all probability, they broke down sequentially over a period of time. Yet the first wasn’t repaired before the second broke down, nor even before the third!

It’s like nobody cared.

Frustrating though incompetent management and sluggish corporate culture may be, the bigger danger is that Singapore society will slowly come to accept all this as normal. It is bad enough that we are reticent about speaking up, and that reticence simply means we fail to apply the needed pressure on public service organisations. But when such a sorry state of things becomes normalised, then the rare person who does speak up will be the nail that sticks out and is seen negatively for it: as the guy who makes trouble, the guy who expects too much, the guy who is unreasonable.

It is never unreasonable to demand better. If we don’t strive, we’ll never progress.

Preliminary findings about flooded tunnel raise more questions

Two weeks after the North-South Line of Singapore’s metro system was severely disrupted because of flooding in a tunnel, there are still calls on social media for Desmond Kuek, the CEO of SMRT Corporation which operates the line, to resign or be sacked. Public anger intensified after SMRT chairman Seah Moon Ming said at the 16 October 2017 press conference that the SMRT maintenance team will have their bonuses cut for failing to maintain the flood-prevention system. The public feeling was that Kuek himself should shoulder the blame and not point fingers at his staff, especially as he has been CEO for five years already.

Indeed, there is a growing perception that an entire cadre of military generals inserted to run various parts of public administration enjoy impunity whatever the failures on their watch. Kuek was a lieutenant general before. It is time for a proper example to be set. Continue reading ‘Preliminary findings about flooded tunnel raise more questions’

Tunnel floods and the erosion of performance legitimacy

In traditional Chinese political thinking, emperors have absolute powers, subject only to the will of gods. The political duty of subjects is to serve and to obey. The Mandate of Heaven, however, can be withdrawn at any time. Flood, famine, earthquake and pestilence are read as signs that Heaven is displeased with the regime and has revoked the emperor’s mandate.

As recently as 1976, millions of people in China had reason to believe that this divine signalling was in operation. On 28 July 1976, a massive earthquake struck the city of Tangshan, killing over 240,000 people, though nobody really knows what the actual figure was. Six weeks later, Mao Zedong, supreme ruler for 27 years, died. Continue reading ‘Tunnel floods and the erosion of performance legitimacy’

Coming soon: 100,000 more people and transport madness in Jurong Lake District

“Any feedback, sir?” asked an eager young man as I was leaving the exhibition.

“Too many questions, too little time,” I said. I would be late if I didn’t hurry up the escalator to the platforms of Jurong East Station, where goodness knows what crush of humanity awaited me. It was too risky to dwell and engage with him.

The exhibition was titled “Jurong Lake District” or something like that. It had a scale carpentry model of the area, and a series of posters mounted on wallboards. Many of the posters (and glib captions) can be viewed at this website: Basically, it’s about a massive development of the area into a “second CBD” (central business district). The problem with the exhibition and website was that everything was made to look like a glossy sales brochure — you know, the kind you get when an eager young man tries to sell you a condo apartment — rather than anything detailed and informative enough for citizens to give feedback on. Continue reading ‘Coming soon: 100,000 more people and transport madness in Jurong Lake District’

Zika erupts in Singapore: how we made it worse than it might otherwise have been


‘Cover up!’ screamed the immediate reaction I noticed on social media. The Health ministry had just announced that they have found 41 cases of Zika infection, barely 24 hours after they said that there was one confirmed case (on Saturday 27 August 2016). How can the number jump so fast without them knowing about these other cases earlier — was the implication behind the shouting headlines. They must be hiding facts from the public! Continue reading ‘Zika erupts in Singapore: how we made it worse than it might otherwise have been’

Hushed tracks


This photo was taken on 22 March 2016. I didn’t know it then but it was when two families lost their beloved sons. A train ran into two trainee technicians as they were on a track. It must have been a moment of unfathomable grief. The enquiry that followed concluded that it was mostly human error. Specifically, negligence in observing safety rules on the part of the seniors in the work crew was the chief cause of the tragedy. See a brief statement from SMRT here. Continue reading ‘Hushed tracks’

Little red dot must learn to capture infrared

For an island almost smack on the equator, why are solar panels so hard to spot in Singapore? This question struck me as I endured yet another scorching day.

Plenty of intense sunlight, but where are the solar panels?

Plenty of intense sunlight, but where are the solar panels?

March to May are usually the hottest months of the year with temperatures frequently hitting 34 degrees Celsius, sometimes reaching 35 or 36. But a recent report in Today newspaper indicates that the future may be worse. Continue reading ‘Little red dot must learn to capture infrared’

Tesla: new technologies need new ways of thinking


My mind wanders a lot. There have been idle moments when, presented with a slice of birthday cake on a plastic or paper plate, I have wondered about the environmental-friendliness of the plate. Reading about Joe Nguyen’s travails in getting his Tesla model S licensed in Singapore, I started to wonder about cake on disposable plate again.  Continue reading ‘Tesla: new technologies need new ways of thinking’

Ourselves through Istanbul

Galata Bridge

Galata Bridge over the Golden Horn

This spot on planet Earth has been inhabited for well over two thousand years — as Byzantium, Constantinople, then Istanbul — and was a great cosmopolitan capital city for 1,500 of those. Merchants and scholars from all over the then-known world flocked to it.

I can’t say, however, that it is cosmopolitan any more, certainly not by the standards of London, New York, Paris or Sydney today. Or even Singapore. Istanbul has a cultural homogeneity that our more nostalgic romantics might wish we had. Continue reading ‘Ourselves through Istanbul’